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When the Parks Go Dark : Night-Shift Workers Toil at the Mundane Behind the Magic

October 16, 1994|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been more than an hour since Disneyland's public address system announced that the park had closed, but visitors are still strolling slowly past the shops on Main Street toward the park's nearly deserted parking lot.

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It's time to put the happiest place on Earth to bed, but there's little time for sweet dreams. And, as security guards gently guide stragglers from the park, a small army of employees emerges from well-hidden maintenance depots scattered throughout the Anaheim tourist attraction.

Two scuba divers slip from a worn rowboat into the cool, dark waters of the submarine attraction to perform underwater surgery on a worn O-ring in a pneumatically powered lobster's right claw. Huge pumps buried in the bowels of Splash Mountain quickly suck 475,000 gallons of water from the attraction as maintenance men don hip waders to start a nightly inspection of the ride's mechanical innards.

Two employees armed with metal cleaner and rags begin the mind-numbing task of polishing away fingerprints from 40 brass poles on Fantasyland's carousel. Under the lights at Autopia, mechanics pop the hoods and yank the starter cords on 40 pint-sized cars as a prelude to a marathon oil change.

After hours, the magic and mystery that fuel a youngster's dreams give way to the mundane but necessary task of keeping amusement parks clean and functional. Theatrical lighting is replaced by harsh but practical fluorescent lights, and main streets become thoroughfares for maintenance vehicles.

"Parks are weird places when they're not open," Bob Ochsner, manager of public relations at Knott's Berry Farm, says during an early morning stroll through the deserted Buena Park attraction. "They're built to have noise and crowds of people in them. It's eerie when they're empty."

During the peak summer months, Knott's daytime employee work force rises to about 1,000. But after the midnight hour, only about 100 janitorial, custodial and security employees are on hand.

And, there's a decidedly different pace at night in Southern California's tourist attractions.

During daylight hours, employees waltz to carefully choreographed show music. Knott's Berry Farm alone has six different soundtracks to set the musical mood.

But at night, the graveyard shift grooves to music of its own choice, delivered through boomboxes and Walkmans. Inside Knott's log ride on one recent morning it was Howard Stern pontificating on the radio. Over on Main Street in Disneyland, it was the Beach Boys on an oldies station.

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Parks offer a handful of perks to help ease the hard fact that night-shift workers are out of sync with work-a-day world rhythms. Disneyland offers free coffee in the Westside Cafe, an employee eatery beneath the Haunted House.

Disneyland employees also are allowed to smoke outdoors at night. "It's one of the bows we make to the fact that the night shift is different," one Disneyland manager says recently as he lit a cigarette and exhaled into the cool night air.

At 3 a.m., Main Street is deserted, save for the Wonder Bread truck driver making dead-of-the-night deliveries to Disneyland's Plaza Pavilion and the solitary custodian who's hosing away the unwanted remainders of another busy day.

A sprinkle of theatrical lights shine atop Sleeping Beauty's castle, but most of the park is shrouded in darkness, interrupted only by harsher but practical spotlights. Portable electric generators sputter into action throughout the park, powering banks of work lights that shine on painters, electricians, welders and gardeners.

Bob Johnson, who's worked the night shift at Disneyland for 23 years, says nighttime is the right time to work. "It's easier to get the work done because there's less bosses, less supervision," says Johnson, who dons a wet suit and scuba gear each night to repair underwater attractions.

"I love the night because it's cool," says Willie Lewis, 63, who's been cleaning up after Knott's visitors for 23 years. "I've done Ghost Town, Fiesta Village, been a janitor in the Chicken Restaurant and the Steakhouse. There ain't nothing in this place I don't know."

"It's the best shift here," says Marcus Puente, 31, who's been hosing down Disneyland's Main Street for three years. "It's quieter and there are no disturbances."

With music blaring from a co-worker's boombox, Puente methodically makes his nightly five-hour trip from one end of Main Street to the other.

"It's easy to put water down," Puente says. "But you have to spend a lot of time pushing it around. By the time the park opens, there can't be a puddle left in the place."

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Many theme park veterans talk about a special bond that develops between employees and theme parks.

"There's still a lot of boyhood in us," says Fullerton resident Paul Anderson, a seven-year Disneyland employee who helps maintain the mechanical innards of attractions. "When I'm lubing rides, I'll sometimes climb inside the attractions and explore."

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